The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and complaints about email. We’re kidding, of course, but if you ask the average businessperson to list three email pet peeves, don't be surprised to get back a list of ten.
Today’s eTip won’t address every bugaboo about email we’ve heard through the years—that long, meandering message would turn into the monster it meant to destroy. Instead, we'll review six common faux pas that plague email communication—along with fixes for each one.
1. Say-Nothing Subject Lines
Marketing professional Loren McDonald said it best: “The ‘from line’ is what recipients use to determine whether to delete an email. The ‘subject line’ is what motivates people to actually open the email.” A vague or missing subject line makes your email more likely to get ignored or passed over for the next message in your reader's inbox.
THE FIX: Think of your main message as a movie, and the subject line as the trailer. Your subject line should make the reader think, “This is something I need to see.” To do so, choose precise terms that preview the main point of your message and connect with your reader. Try to limit your subject line to eight words or fewer.
Vague: Upcoming Trip
Informative: Logistics for August 19-21 D.C. Training
Relevant: New Company Bonus Structure
2. Long, Rambling Messages
Emails that go on and on without expressing a clear main point create confusion and waste readers' time, forcing unnecessary follow-up emails.
THE FIX: Get to the point quickly. Focus your message on one main point, cut superfluous details, and express what you want from the reader. The SEA pattern will help you accomplish these goals for most messages:
- Situation: Start by introducing your main point—what you are writing about and why.
- Explanation: Answer other pertinent questions: who, where, when, and how? In other words, the middle should support your main point by answering the reader's questions about it. If these questions require further explanation, explore each main supporting point in a new paragraph.
- Action: End by explaining or reiterating what the reader should do with the information.
(Other patterns of organization are more effective for breaking bad news and writing to persuade.)
3. Unnecessary Reply-All
Reply-all horror stories have become a rite of passage in business communication. Unnecessary reply-alls clog inboxes and bury relevant information in threads of nonessential details.
THE FIX: We’re not saying your reply-all feature is a nuclear button, but you should use some caution and critical thinking before clicking it, especially for emails with numerous recipients. Ask yourself, Is the information in my reply relevant to the original sender and every other recipient, including those cc’ed on the message? If not, limit the reply to the original sender.
4. Improper Tone of Voice
Has the tone of an email ever rubbed you the wrong way? Good information told in an improper voice can impede communication and harm relationships. Watch out specifically for language that is disrespectful, whiny, flippant, rude, presumptuous, dismissive, or passive-aggressive.
THE FIX: Use a business-like voice (polite, professional, polished, and practical) and match your voice to the subject and reader:
- A routine email to a colleague can use a semiformal voice: A semiformal voice is friendly, natural, personable, and conversational. It uses occasional contractions and some personal pronouns but avoids acronyms, text-speak, emojis, and GIFs.
- Use a formal voice for emails about serious matters and to clients or other readers outside your organization. A formal voice uses complete sentences and correct punctuation; it is serious, dignified, deliberate, and objective. It avoids contractions and uses few if any personal pronouns.
Remember: Your writing voice is like a fashion choice—it’s far better to be overdressed than underdressed. When in doubt, raise your level of formality.
5. Misspelled Names
Of all the common typos, misspelled names of people or organizations are most harmful because they suggest a lack of care and respect.
THE FIX: Never assume your spelling is correct. Double-check the spelling of all names to avoid careless errors.
6. The Hasty "Send"
Have you ever sent a message in a rush but quickly realized you made an error? We've all made this mistake before and know that sinking feeling when we spot the error.
THE FIX: Get in the habit of reading your emails slowly and out loud before clicking "send." This habit will help you avoid missing words and other obvious mistakes. For especially important emails, consider leaving off the recipients until the end, requiring you to pause and think before pressing “Send.”